Pro-Russian sentiment is strong, but while many would have supported a swift takeover as in Crimea few desire a costly rebellion and war
This article originally appeared at The Jamestown Foundation
On March 6, the car of the commander of the Ukrainian special police battalion “Slobozhanshchyna,” Andriy Yanholenko, exploded in the government-controlled eastern city of Kharkiv. The commander and his spouse were inside the car at the time of the explosion and both were hospitalized. Yanholenko received medium-level injuries, but his wife is in critical condition. The interior minister of Ukraine, Arsen Avakov, said that the government would respond with greater resolve to the terrorists’ attempts to destabilize Kharkiv. “No, not for the sake of fueling exasperation and revenge, but in order to prevent repeating the tragedy—[faced now by an] ordinary person from Donetsk and Luhansk, where people lost everything [because of the war]—in Kharkiv and throughout Ukraine,” the interior minister stated.
In his capacity as the commander of the Slobozhanshchyna police battalion, Yanholenko fought the militants in Luhansk and Donetsk provinces (together known as the Donbas region). Therefore, the state prosecutor’s office is inclined to regard the explosion of Yanholenko’s car as a terrorist attack.
In recent months, terrorist attacks in Kharkiv region have become nearly routine. The previous and the most powerful attack to date took place on February 22. As a result of the explosion, which was timed to coincide with a march commemorating last year’s Euromaidan movement, three people died and 15 were injured. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko stated after that attack that “inhuman monsters who organized the explosion during a peaceful march in Kharkiv attempted to expand the territory of terrorism.” Investigators believe that the so-called “Kharkiv guerrillas,” who apparently have ties to the Russian security services, staged the mid-February terrorist attack. Law enforcement agencies have detained four suspects, who admitted that they had received instructions and arms from Russia.
Earlier, in January 2015, another explosion took place at a Kharkiv court building: 14 people were wounded. In November 2014, an explosion took place at a bar, Stena, where activists of Ukraine’s patriotic and democratic movements often gathered. Eleven people received injuries in that violent incident. In addition, several other terrorist attacks have taken place in the city that did not claim any casualties. According to Ukraine’s Ministry of Interior, over 700 pro-Russia separatists have been detained in Kharkiv in the past several months. Many of them were members of underground groups.
The so-called “prime minister” of the unrecognized, Moscow-backed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Alexander Zakharchenko, has openly promised his supporters “to liberate all of the territory of DPR”, by which he meant the entire Donetsk province of Ukraine (RIA Novosti, October 10, 2014). Currently, well over half of Donetsk province is under the control of the authorities in Kyiv.
However, in private conversations with Jamestown, in the city of Slavyansk, refugees from the territories currently under control of the separatists said that the Russia-backed rebel forces would not limit themselves to “the liberation of Donetsk region, but would like to go to Kharkiv, too” (Author’s interviews, February 20–28). Slavyansk is under Ukrainian government control and is located about 70 kilometers from the frontline.
“I am not competent enough to talk about who exactly wants to destabilize the situation in Kharkiv, but the situation is worrying. For example, today we decided to abstain from having a march to celebrate the anniversary of the great Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevchenko, because we are afraid of new terror attacks,” the spokesperson for the city administration of Kharkiv, Yuri Sidurenko, told Jamestown in a phone conversation.
The leader of the Euromaidan movement in Kharkiv, Igor Rassokha was far more candid. Rassokha asserted that there was no doubt the Kremlin was behind the destabilization trend in Kharkiv province. According to the activist, the primary source of danger for Kharkiv comes not from the separatist enclaves in Donbas, but from Russia itself. “[The city of] Kharkiv is only 40 kilometers away from the Russian border. Russian military units are concentrated on the Russian side of the border. Provocateurs in Kharkiv province are ramping up their activities. They try to unite the separatist-minded residents of the region and proclaim the so-called Kharkiv People’s Republic. Saboteurs from Russia also come to help them” Rassokha told Jamestown, on March 9.
Moreover, according to the Kharkiv-branch Euromaidan activist, the Kremlin bets on the fact that the majority of the eastern Ukrainian city’s residents are Russian-speakers, just as in neighboring Donetsk province. Therefore, the Kharkiv population could be pushed to support the separatist movement. However, in Rassokha’s opinion, popular sentiment for the separatist cause has plummeted in Kharkiv province precisely because of the violent and chaotic developments in nearby Donbas. “People see that the Kremlin is not in a hurry to annex the separatist enclaves in Donbas, and this cools the ardor even of the most ardent separatists,” he argued. According to Rassokha’s estimates, as of now, 10–15 percent of the population of Kharkiv is in favor of joining Russia. About 35 percent are true patriots of Ukraine. And 50–55 percent of the population make up a diverse mass that is undecided about such issues. This group is mainly preoccupied with the problems stemming from the rapid appreciation of the US dollar to the Ukrainian hryvna and the associated catastrophic decline in living standards. Provocateurs from Russia might try to use such people, according to Rassokha.
The situation in Kharkiv had been quite tense anyway, Rassokha alleged, but it further deteriorated following the assassination of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov (see EDM, March 2, 5, 9). Rassokha considers the assassination to be a particularly concerning sign. “Boris Nemtsov consistently spoke against Russian aggression in Ukraine. The murder of this politician may signal that the Kremlin has finally decided to [openly] wage war on Ukraine,” Rassokha asserted